It feels almost impossible to avoid scaremongering headlines predicting an imminent war in the Middle East.
It didn’t take long for the speculating to begin. Within a few hours of US President Donald Trump assassinating Qassem Soleimani—the second in command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the head of the Al Quds force at Baghdad International Airport, almost everyone had a hot take. Some mocked the US President for not knowing who Qassem Soleimani was before he took office. Others berated him for murdering one of the top commanders responsible for eradicating the so-called Islamic State from the region.
On Twitter, #WWIII has been trending. After President Trump tweeted that he wanted to bomb Iranian cultural sites—a tactic shockingly similar to that of ISIS—many social media users started tweeting about #IranianCulturalSites, another plea not to go to war with Iran.
But what about ordinary Iraqis? After all, the strike that killed Soleimani happened on their soil. Later on, the retaliation strike happened at a US army base—which was also on Iraqi soil. It is clear that if there is an escalation between the United States and Iran that it will be those civilian lives that are lost.
Nevertheless, ordinary Iraqis’ voices are almost absent from the media.
It fits into a pattern. For the past three months, tens of thousands of mostly young, often unemployed Iraqis have taken to the streets, demanding an end to the corrupt politicians that have defined every aspect of their lives from access to water and electricity, to whether or not they have a job. At times, the Iranian-backed paramilitary forces responded with force so extreme that they turned off the Internet, an age-old tactic from the Arab Spring meant to stop the news of excessive violence from reaching the public.
It did anyway. When teargas canisters the size of coke cans are shot at protestors’ heads, and their friends have access to VPNs, it has a way of getting out.
But while protests in Lebanon, Chile, and Hong Kong have received extensive international media attention and recognition, Iraq’s anti-corruption protests have received very little coverage in comparison—even though more than 500 people have been killed, and a staggering 19,000 have been injured. Now that the entire western media is offering overnight expert analysis on Qassem Soleimani, and what his death means for the region. Iraq is seizing every headline and talkshow, but there is almost no mention of the tens of thousands of people who have been protesting against the conditions left behind by the US occupation, and the subsequent power grab by the Iranians, and the Iran-backed Shia militias.
One of the pieces of news that did start circulating was video footage of Iraqi protestors dancing in the streets, celebrating the death of Qassem Soleimani. Another video showed armed groups opening fire on Iraqis who refused to mourn the General’s death. In many ways, it contradicts many of the narratives that the US President did something catastrophic in the Middle East, or damaging for US foreign policy. But the videos make sense when one considers that he is the leader of the Iran-backed paramilitary forces that have cracked down on the civil society protestors, firing bullets and teargas canisters, all the while abducting and arresting people found to be organizing the protests.
While it is useful to understand the axis of resistance on a geopolitical level, it is only one part—and in many ways, the most predictable part—of the story. Ordinary people are the other, and their narratives are far more complex—and important. Without them, we have no way of understanding how foreign policy decisions impact ordinary people.
As the US-centric news has now extensively reported, many Iraqis want the United States out of their country—but many want the Iranian powers out as well. One of the hashtags that has been circulating on social media translates to: “We are not the US, We are not Iran, We are Iraq”—a rallying cry to be left alone by both sides. Another is “Iraq_Is_Not_A_War_Ground”—another online protest against being the battleground for global powers’ proxy war.
As journalists, it is our responsibility to listen to these voices, to understand the impact of foreign policies on the ground. We should read, watch and share examples of media coverage that provides not only a balanced perspective, but an insight into how the words and actions of politicians are impacting people on the ground—and how the political machinations of western leaders can have global implications.